Sex Work as Choice: Exploring Agency and Structure among migrants who sell sex.

With the ongoing European Refugee crisis, one of the main concerns is refugees being forced into prostitution. The refugees enter the host country illegally and are thus undocumented; leaving them with a few options and sex work becomes a lucrative one. While the debate around sex work is complicated to say the least, the discussion takes on many more layers when one considers migrants and sex work.

There is a large amount of debate and discussion over sex work being looked at as a regular form of work. The struggle to detach stigma from sex work has been going on for decades.

Laura Augustín, an anthropologist, has written extensively about migration, sex work, and trafficking.  Agustín (2006)  covers a significant portion of the debate regarding moving the study of migrants who sell sex[1] from the discipline of criminology to migration studies. Migrants have complicated and interesting stories that are lost when thinking of all migrants as victims of trafficking.

There is an inherent bias present when studying trafficking as a part of criminology, and scholars should leave the stigmatisation of 'prostitution' behind.  Most anti trafficking stands only look at severe cases- the worse cases that come to light- they ignore many stories of women who earn enough money in a short time to support themselves, and then decide if they want to continue in the sex trade or not.

Augustín (2006) notes that the funding, backed by State authorities are only interested in exploitation studies, not migration, hence trafficking is used as a starting point, thus assuming all women migrants who sell sex are victimized. Like the work of Italian migration researcher Giovanna Campani (Campani 1998). When thinking of migrants who sell sex as only exploited, it takes away from the agency of the individual.

Campani (1998) mentions that in the larger narrative of the sex business, the grey areas of trafficking are lost. Trafficking is never completely involuntary nor is it voluntary.  Stories of migrants who end up in sex work are a mixture of trickery, family complicity and countless seductions. The lack of work opportunities can push women to work voluntarily as sex workers, which is almost always the case with migrants. Thus giving the women and men in some cases a degree of agency.

Augustín (2006)  also makes the case for looking at sex work as entrepreneurial in nature and suggests its inclusion in transnational studies and research. Sex workers grow businesses and are flexible as migrants who earn money through various means and other odd jobs. There are cases of women entering sex work and then going onto own brothels and growing empires out of such enterprises. Is there not then an element of agency and choice in this regard? Researchers and policy makers need to look at the current social, economic and political structures in place that help to sustain sex work as a viable option of labour instead of viewing it as only exploitative in nature.

Mentioning sex work is problematic, because of the stigma, even when it is a common source of income and often the only option available to migrant women and men who often don’t know the local language and cannot get jobs that pay well due to their illegal status and/or no formal education or training.

It can be argued, however, that ‘knowing beforehand’ is a poor measure of exploitation and unhappiness, since it is difficult, if not impossible, to know what working conditions will feel like in future jobs (a characteristic not limited to sexual labour). This argument creates a case for the option of exiting or leaving sex work as a form of labour. If sex work is to be considered a regular economic activity and at par with any other form of labour, migrants should have the choice and the freedom to leave sex work when they please; but this is a tricky situation as sex work is often the only viable option available to illegal migrants who do not know the local language and also in some cases suffer from racial stereotypes where women of a certain race are highly sexualized and objectified.  

Granting agency to migrating individuals does not mean denying the vast structural changes that push and pull them. These push and pull factors are responsible for most reasons individuals migrate- there are patterns of structural coercion that present sex work as the only viable option for migrant women. In studying the factors responsible, one finds a web of influences (Example: desire to experience new cultures, escape poor living standards etc.)  Both personal and societal that culminates into forming such decisions. It is not easy to mark areas where the individual has agency and where structural coercion comes into play.

When it comes to consent and exploitation it is not easy to distinguish between the two. Many migrants who know that their work in a foreign land may include, if not fully, sex work; but only realize the full extent of it when they are involved in it and want to now escape- on which side of the debate does such a case fall? (Augustín (2006)

There are many such cases, where migrant women do not hate the work per se, but would prefer better regulation by the state that removes a part of the stigma and provides them better laws.

There is raging debate, especially in India where the Abolition of Prostitution and Sex work against the Regulation side that says sex workers must have rights (focusing on health and sanitary issues), but between this tussle of so called ‘moral values’ and ‘human rights’ the story of the sex worker is lost. Individual narratives are important as they tell us the stories of sex workers and what they require and want. The policy debate ignores the fact that sex work is a form of labour that women should have to choice to move away from. It should be an economic activity detached from stigma, because by abolishing sex work completely there will always be underground and parallel networks operating. Thus we need to get rid of our morality and view sex work without stigma; the voice of the sex worker must be heard.

The term ‘migrants who sell sex’ has been used instead of sex workers because migrants here are not regulated, legal sex workers.

Vedika Inamdar